Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Kyrgyzstan | Tash Rabat Caravanserai

Woke up this morning thinking about the Tash Rabat Carvanserai which I had visited seven or eight years ago. I had been dreaming of Lady Ga Ga throughout most of the night, and I guess the inevitable Connection Between Lady Ga Ga and Caravanserais triggered my memories of Tash Rabat. Located in Kyrgyzstan, between the small city of Naryn, on the upper reaches of the Naryn River, one of the sources of the fabled Syr Darya River (the ancient Jaxartes), and Kashgar, in Xinjiang, this is one of best preserved caravan hostels on the entire eastern section of the Silk Road. I stopped overnight here while traveling from Bishkek, the current capital of Kyrgyzstan, to Kashgar. Of course you can no longer stay in the caravanserai itself, but the local Kyrgyz maintain a small wooden guesthouse nearby and there are also several gers available for rent. I stayed in a ger.

Tash Rabat Caravanserai
Although it is a standard sight-seeing stop for most travelers from Bishkek to Kashgar via the Torugart Pass, with many of them staying overnight, very little is known about the history of the caravanseria itself. The local Kyrgyz claim to know nothing, except that it was a standard stop on the old Silk Road. Other sources maintain that the caravanseria was originally a Nestorian Christian monastery or church dating back to the 10th century. The interior layout is indeed in the form of a cross, with a large doomed room at the intersection of the arms and the vertical column. Since there was a Nestorian Bishopric in Kashgar in the 12th century it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Nestorian Christians established an outpost here. (Incidentally, see The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died (also Kindle Edition) for an utterly fascinating account of Christianity in Asia during the first Millennium. Many people forget that for its first one thousand years Christianity was essentially an Asian religion. Only later did it become identified with the “West”. )

Still other sources maintain that the building was once a Buddhist temple or monastery. Others dismiss both these assertions and claim that the caravanserai was purpose-built in the 14th century. Anyhow, the building measures roughly about 110 feet deep by 100 feet wide, with a wall 18 feet high at the entrance and tapering down to four or five feet at the back. Off the main corridor are numerous rooms, some measuring only 8 by 8 feet, which were apparently used by the more humble travelers. This corridor leads to a large room which served as the lobby, kitchen, and dining room combined. This room is capped by a dome which extends sixty or more feet above the floor. It looks as if there may have been frescos or paintings around the top edge of the dome, but these are now largely obliterated. It was eerily silent here under the dome even during the day when there was a lot of ruckus outside—drunken Kyrgyz brawling with each other, dog fights, etc. Off to the side of this central area were several large bedrooms apparently meant for more affluent travelers.

At one point while I was there full-sized bus arrived with at least forty veiled women on board. I did not see any men except for the two drivers. They went together into the main room under the dome and after all other visitors, including myself, were shooed out, they apparently engaged in prayers or a ceremony of some sort. After or hour or so they came out of the building and immediately boarded the bus and left. The local Kyrgyzs allowed that they were Sufis, but other than that would say nothing about what they were doing there.

A elderly Russian man who claimed he lived about twenty miles down road from the caravanserai and just happened to be passing by could shed no more light on the Sufis, but he did say there was a local legend which maintained that the caravanserai was built over the entrance to a cave which extended for dozen of miles south, with an opening on the other side of the Chinese border. He claimed that in the nineteenth century daring smugglers used the caves to smuggle gold and other compact items into China. Whether there is any truth to this legend I cannot say.

Looking up the valley from Tash Rabat. The old Silk Road went up this valley.

Nowadays the road heads west and then swings around some spurs of the Tian Shan Mountains before reaching the Torugart Pass to the south. In the old days the caravan route went straight up the valley from the caravanserai and over the Tash Rabat Pass through the Tian Shan. This was the last pass before the 12,310-foot Torugart Pass leading to Kashgar and Xinjiang. I hired a horse from the local Kyrgyz and rode up the valley to the 13,018-foot Tash Rabat Pass for a look around. The north side of the pass is quite steep and would have been a trial for heavily-laden horses or camels. I really wanted to ride on to the Torugart Pass, but this of course was impossible. The next day I continued on by jeep to the Chinese border at Torugart Pass and on to the storied Silk Road City of Kashgar.

View south from 13,018-foot Tash Rabat Pass